ATHENS, Ga. — Tennessee turned blowout to shootout at No. 5 Georgia on Saturday, but the Volunteers’ final three shots were blanks.
Freshman running backs Keith Marshall and Todd Gurley combined for 294 yards rushing and five touchdowns and Georgia’s defense gathered itself in time to end Tennessee’s final three drives with turnovers as the Bulldogs held on for a 51-44 victory.
Georgia (3-0, 5-0) rushed for 282 yards and passed for 278, and big plays continued to gash the Vols’ defense.
Marshall rushed for a 75-yard TD midway through the first quarter. Gurley’s 51-yard touchdown run gave the Bulldogs a 27-10 lead with 11:48 left in the first half.
“We’ve obviously got a lot of issues on defense stopping the run, you know, we’ve gotta correct in this open date or we’re not gonna beat anybody,” said UT coach Derek Dooley, whose team fell to 0-2 in the SEC and 3-2 overall.
Tennessee looked like a more gutsy team than the one that wilted in a 37-20 home loss to Florida two weeks ago.
In fact, after falling in the 17-point hole against Georgia, the Vols battled back to take a 30-27 lead on Tyler Bray’s 10-yard TD pass to Rajion Neal with 42 seconds left in the first half.
It capped a 20-point spurt in a span of 3:11. Sophomore linebacker/Wildcat engineer A.J. Johnson, who grew up 30 minutes away from Athens in Gainesville, helped ignite the turnaround. He scored from a yard out in the Wildcat and Derrick Brodus’ PAT made it 27-17 with 4:53 left in the half. Two plays later, Johnson recovered an Aaron Murray fumble at the Georgia 8-yard line that was forced by Herman Lathers’ sack.
Bray found Zach Rogers for a 4-yard TD pass on 3rd-and-goal, and the Vols were within 27-23 (Derrick Brodus hooked the PAT) 2:55 before intermission.
Georgia fumbled again a minute later when Curt Maggitt forced one from Marshall and UT recovered at the Bulldogs’ 17, setting up Neal’s TD catch.
Fittingly concluding a wildly entertaining first half that included two missed PATs and UT safety Byron Moore’s 35-yard interception return for a TD, Georgia’s Marshall Morgan tied the score at 30 with a 50-yard field goal on the final play of the half.
The Bulldogs scored TDs on their first two drives of the second half — each were TD passes from Murray to Michael Bennett — and led 43-30 after UT’s Daniel McCullers blocked the PAT on the latter one.
Volunteers receiver Cordarrelle Patterson made a good decision and an even better run for a 46-yard score that made the score 43-37 with 4:13 left in the third quarter. It was supposed to be a reverse flea-flicker to Justin Hunter, but the safety recognized it and Patterson tucked it and ran. He must have covered 120 yards while running from one of side of the field to the other and back en route to the end zone.
“It was supposed to been a little pass play but Justin — they had dropped back and covered him pretty good,” Patterson said. “So I was just keeping it and running it and see what I could do with it.”
Of course, Marshall answered 67 seconds later with a 72-yard TD run and a back-shoulder conversion pass to Marlon Brown made it 51-37.
Neal, who never flinched while running hard for 104 yards on 23 carries, concluded the scoring when his 9-yard TD capped a 13-play, 60-yard drive with 8:56 left in the game.
“We’re better in a lot of areas, but we’ve gotta shore up this … stopping the run issue,” Dooley said. “They’re a great running team, but we’re a lot better than what we showed, and it was frustrating. And then when they get in the secondary we’ve got no ability to get the guy down, which is really disappointing. …
“I’ve always believed these guys have some fight in them. It’s everybody else who didn’t. But you’ve gotta go out there and prove it. Hey, we got hit by a freight train early in the game, now. They were ready and we were on our heels. But we just kept playing, and you find your way back in the game.”
UT’s defense did force four Georgia punts in the fourth quarter. But Bray was intercepted on a first-down throw at the 50 with 5:55 remaining and turned it over on a fumble at the Georgia 31 with 1:22 left on another first-down play.
The final turnover was a tipped ball after UT had taken over at its 35 with no timeouts and 15 seconds remaining.
“It’s nice to have a gut check and come out on top,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “A lot of things in the first half deflated us, but we realized where we were, we knew we had to play another 30 minutes, and we rose to the occasion when we needed to.”
Bray shouldn’t be faulted for final turnover, but the previous two miscues were weighing on him.
“I was … trying to do too much,” said the 6-foot-6 junior, who finished 24 of 45 for 281 yards two TDs and three interceptions.
Murray was 19-of-25 passing for 278 yards, two TDs and one interception.
Tennessee is off next week, and visits Mississippi State on Oct. 13. Georgia visits South Carolina on Saturday.